The news was unsettling. One of our nation’s historically Black colleges was facing a possible shutoff of its water on campus due to an overdue bill. It looked like Morris Brown College was about to redefine the meaning of a “dry” campus. While some Black colleges have reportedly been under significant financial strain, the news from Morris Brown was alarming because it was the most “raw” example of the difficulties many of these institutions face in the current recession.
For many decades historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) only competed against each other because white campuses were off-limits to Black students. Generations of Blacks earned their college degrees at storied Black institutions that carry the names Howard, Fisk, Hampton, Morehouse, Morgan, Tuskegee, and Cheyney to name a few. These schools were the equivalent of a Black Ivy League, producing talent that went on to break barriers and make history despite the resistance of a nation in the grips of Jim Crow. As times changed and white state institutions integrated their campuses, Black colleges still thrived but the clock was ticking. As Blacks enrolled in predominantly white colleges and southern states did not invest in Black colleges, HBCU’s were put at a distinct disadvantage.
Today, many of these institutions are struggling to keep pace with white institutions in terms of course offerings, facilities, athletics, and student services. Black high school graduates also often have a range of options to consider when thinking about their postsecondary education. This is particularly the case for students whose academic credentials make them attractive recruiting targets. Both public and private Black colleges face unique challenges. Black colleges that are state institutions are often subject to the whims of hostile state legislatures and are constantly competing against other state colleges or the state’s flagship university campus for resources. Private Black colleges are dependent upon alumni support, philanthropic gifts and targeted government assistance. In both instances HBCUs often lack the critical mass to reach the next level of development and struggle to keep pace in today’s competitive marketplace.
The saga at Morris Brown is an extreme case. Many Black colleges are holding their own, even in the face of painful cuts due to the current economic downturn. One of Morris Brown’s neighboring institutions, Spelman College, is experiencing financial troubles and has instituted layoffs and eliminated its education department. Another neighbor Clark Atlanta University announced layoffs of 70 faculty members and 30 staff, and was forced to rearrange classes. While most of these colleges will not face the same type of fiscal stress that Morris Brown is experiencing, many HBCUs are fighting to stay relevant in an era where they must be reinvented to stay relevant. For small campuses that have slim operating margins, and are susceptible to a minor fluctuation in enrollment and giving, it is not an easy task.
Meanwhile, Morris Brown College is holding on but for how long is anyone’s guess. The school has lost its accreditation and a good portion of its students. If it closes it will join the ranks of schools such as Bishop College and Barber-Scotia College that simply could not turn the corner. All the news is not bad though. In many ways HBCUs remain a bargain. They are affordable, most possess a committed, talented and underrated faculty, and some have invested in their physical plants to the degree that they are competitive with their counterpart white state colleges. There may also be an opportunity for some of the more solvent HBCUs to collaborate in ways that could strengthen their academic programs, grow their enrollments and stabilize their finances. For others, however, the current recession could be the driving factor behind their demise.